The word for 2017 is…

I’m not a big believer in life verses. It’s too easy to manipulate a verse from the Bible and make it what you want it to be while ignoring context and purpose.  But I do enjoy choosing a word for the year.

sinai-3Each year I pray over a word God may have for me. Last year’s word was Sinai. I know what you’re thinking. Sinai? Really? How about Mephibosheth? Or Maher-shalal-hash-baz? Trust me, I thought the same thing, but after seeing the way God breathed His plan and sang over the pivotal moments of this past year, looking back I finally understand why He impressed the word Sinai into my spirit. It was fitting and profound. I saw His glory come down in a very tangible way.

One of my favorite reads of the past year was Allen Arnold’s The Story of With. In it, Allen said something that hit me hard. “Live completely unbalanced for the things that matter most.”

Live completely unbalanced…

live-unbalancedThat phrase echoed through my heart for weeks and wouldn’t let me go.

After years spent spinning my wheels, and a battle with depression, God tenderly showed me how deep is the pit of people pleasing. It’s taken years to crawl out of the abyss…years as He’s held my hand, walking me from darkness into Light. Time when I’ve learned what it means to be a God-pleaser instead of a people pleaser. Time spent learning how much I’m loved by Him…how different approval is from love and a host of other things. Years when I wrote a book about recognizing the destructive patterns to find healing. Years of agony, living out of balance until I finally found freedom. https://www.amazon.com/Hollow-Victory-Landmines-Victorious-Christian/dp/1484100131/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1483218376&sr=8-2&keywords=tara+johnson+hollow+victory

I suppose it’s natural to yearn for balance after living in such an upside down way for so long.

Yet Allen’s quote continued to haunt me. “Live completely unbalanced for the things that matter most.

It finally hit me.

In my strive to step away from people pleasing and approval addiction, I had redefined my boundaries which was needful, but had allowed myself to become cocooned in a sterile bubble. I tried to ‘balance it all’ but still failed. I said no to the boundary abusers but failed to nurture what mattered most…deep connection with God. I bought into the myth of multi-tasking but only succeeded in doing many things poorly and wondered why I still couldn’t get it right.

lucy-and-ethel

This past year has marked a profound shift in my walk with God. It’s a time of putting down the ‘to-do’ list and more time trying ‘to-be’.

Before my battle with depression, I was living out of balance for the things that mattered least. But what if Allen is right? What if I learn to live out-of-balance for Jesus? What if I stop trying to get everything perfectly situated? To keep a perfectly tidy house? Juggle the perfect schedule? Perfect meals? What if I become comfortable with being messy me and spend my time at Jesus feet?” What if I just focus on living like Mary of Bethany, who didn’t care about all the other ‘stuff’ because she knew, in the long run, it didn’t really matter? “She has chosen the better part and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

My word for 2017 is presence. I want my sole focus for this year, and my life, to seek the presence of my Savior. To know Him. To crave Him. To love Him. Nothing more.

We have this moment. If you’ve lost a child, faced a heart-ripping betrayal, an unexpected diagnosis, or well, hit puberty, you know the harsh truth: life is change. Sometimes we can’t imagine a moment more perfect than the one we are in and then we are dashed upon the rocks, slammed with such force we can scarcely take a breath from the pain of it. Sometimes we aren’t even sure if taking a breath is worth it.

If your heart is still beating in your chest, God’s work with your life is not yet done.

I don’t want this year to be marked with the drive to be efficient, worship my to-do list, balance it all or live in the hamster wheel that powers the dimly lit bulbs of my family’s house. I’ve lived that way long enough and have found it to be a broken cistern than takes more than it gives, drawing blood and life from those willing to be lured into its trap.

I’m starting out the new year buried in his Word, and reading a new book by Shauna Niequist, Present over Perfect. present-over-perfectBut even in this I must be careful. I don’t want to be busy learning how to be in his presence and neglect time when I can put down the books, the phone, the ‘stuff’ away and just be with Him. Learning about someone is never as rewarding as talking to the person one on one, am I right?

I crave Jesus. I crave His presence. I want to live unbalanced for the One Who matters most.

Do you have a word for the year? What is it? What do you find most difficult about nurturing your relationship with God?

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The Innkeeper

“No room.” no-vacancy

Most of us have heard the story. The fabled innkeeper who turned away Mary and Joseph in their hour of need. The calloused man has become a staple in the Christmas story, though he’s never mentioned in the Bible.

No, really. The only Gospel that makes mention of there being ‘no room’ is Luke chapter two. Check it out:

and she gave birth to her Son, her firstborn; and she wrapped Him in [swaddling] cloths and laid Him in a manger, because there was no [private] room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7 AMP)

No innkeeper, only a stated fact. There was no room for them.

With Caesar Augustus wielding his power and demanding a census of the entire Roman world, anyone with family roots in Bethlehem would have been forced to go back to the tiny city. If there was more than one inn there, Mary and Joseph may have heard more than one resounding “no” that night. Slammed doors in their faces. Careless attitudes amid the press of scurrying people and shouting peddlers clogging the roads.

Get this…some scholars even disagree on what is meant by the word inn. We tend to think of it like a hotel. But what if the writer meant something different? I recently stumbled upon this information written by Todd Bolen that made me pause:

“The word translated as ‘inn’ is the word kataluma, which is used elsewhere by Luke and translated as ‘guest chamber’ or ‘upper room’ (Luke 22:11; cf. Mark 14:14)…The result of this mistranslation leads to a different understanding of the story. It’s not that Joseph and Mary were late to town, but it’s that they were rejected by their family. Clearly they had family members in town, as that was the reason they returned to Bethlehem for the census. That there was no room in the guest chamber for a pregnant woman indicates that they chose not to make room for this unwedded mother. The birth of Jesus in a room where animals lived suggest shame and rejection.” (http://blog.bibleplaces.com/2006/12/in-typical-christmas-pageant-one-of.html)

mary-and-joseph-stable

This puts a whole new spin on the birth of Jesus, doesn’t it? Rejected by His own, even before birth. The thought of what Mary and Joseph endured as a young couple pierces my heart. In times of desperation, we see the most despicable callousness of humanity, yet also stand in wonder at the sweetness of God’s grace and the gentle touch from the kindness of strangers.

Whether “No room” was the result of a stressed out innkeeper or judgmental family members, the result was the same…those who pushed Mary, Joseph and Jesus away missed out on the greatest blessing to ever sweep planet earth. If they only knew Who was coming…if they only knew there were shepherds trembling on a hillside, watching the heavens flood with angels proclaiming the Good News…if they only heard the sound of God filling the quiet room with a lusty cry. The Author of Life crying peace into the darkness. What beauty, what mind-bending astonishment.

Those who pushed Him away missed it all. This Christmas, you and I are in danger of doing the same.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in hanging the lights and rushing around to get all the shopping done, but ignore the homeless shelters. It’s far too convenient to plan our Christmas menu and fight the crowds at the grocery store than to give our time visiting someone who is lonely. It’s easier to check off our do-list than forgive the family member who hurt us so deeply.

“No room.” “No time.” “I’m tired.” “That person asking for help is different than me.” If we’re so busy doing things for Jesus that we can’t stop and lend a hand to the least of these, then we’ve missed Him.

merry-christmas

34 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father [you favored of God, appointed to eternal salvation], inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 I was naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me [with help and ministering care]; I was in prison, and you came to Me [ignoring personal danger].’ 37 Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 And when did we see You as a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 The King will answer and say to them, ‘I assure you and most solemnly say to you, to the extent that you did it for one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it for Me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40 AMP)

Don’t be an Innkeeper, keeping the love and light of Christ inside. True joy comes in giving yourself away. No slammed doors allowed.

The Dishwasher Repairman

I originally posted this story a year ago, but due to popular demand, I’m reposting it again. I’ve received more feedback and questions on the dishwasher repairman than any other person I’ve ever written about. Next week, Lord willing, you’ll have a brand new blog to read. For now, here’s a little trip down memory lane.

I stood in the kitchen, watching the repairman duck his head into our broken dishwasher. How many times had it fallen apart now? Two? Three? Whatever the  number, I was becoming a proficient hand washer of dirty dishes. dishwasher repair

The repairman eased back out of the washer’s cavern and pointed, his thick mustache twitching. “I got the sprayer piece repaired, but see here?” His finger outlined the rim of the large circle of metal resting in the bottom. “This is the heating element. That white build up is from soap. If it continues to build up, the heating element will be insulated and won’t be able to heat the water correctly.”

I frowned. “So I need to switch soaps?”

He shook his head. “Won’t help. Phosphates are no longer allowed in dishwasher detergents. Without it, the soap gunks up and clogs up the works.”

Lovely. I sighed as he scribbled his instructions on a piece of paper. He was a knowledgeable guy but seemed quiet…almost as if his shoulders were weighted down by something. He was stern and smiled little.

That suddenly changed when my little dog approached him, her white tail wagging. Upon spying her, his face instantly softened. A smile broke through his gruff exterior as he eased onto the floor and began rubbing her furry head.

bichon

He murmured, “Aren’t you just a sweet little thing?” She nuzzled closer as he cooed and exclaimed over her with sweet tenderness. The transformation in him was amazing. He was soft and gentle…a veritable marshmallow. I grinned seeing their exchange.

“She likes you. Dogs have a good sense of character.”

He chuckled softly as he stroked her head. “I love animals. She makes me think of my cat. Always so happy to see me.”

The dog was now climbing all over him, wagging and quivering with excitement. The man laughed low. “Yep, since my family is gone, it’s just me and my sweet little cat.”

I probably shouldn’t have asked but I couldn’t help it. “Your family is gone? Do you mind if I ask about them? What happened?”

His eyes held a soft kind of pain. A sadness mingled with heavy resignation. His voice was low as he answered me.

“My daughter was murdered several years ago and my wife died of cancer in 2010.”

My heart constricted as I gazed at this sweet, broken man. Why does it seem like some lives constantly eat the bread of sorrow? sorrow

“I’m so sorry.”

He looked down at the wagging fur ball in his lap and the sadness cloaking him fled for a moment. “It’s alright. Just me and my cat for now.”

“Do you have anywhere to go for Christmas?”

He shook his head slowly. “No, ma’am.”

The words slipped past my lips in a rush. “Come spend Christmas Eve with our family. Please.”

He smiled sadly. “That’s kind of you, but I live in Texas. I’ve only come this far because the company has me training other repairmen. I don’t know where I’ll be on Christmas Eve. I just go wherever they send me.”

The thought of this man and his cat alone on Christmas flooded me with a weight I couldn’t quite explain. “Well, if you’re in this area, please come by. We’ll be here.”

“Thank you.”

Before he could stand up, my two year old toddled into the kitchen and blinked, trying to assess the presence of the stranger in his kitchen. Slowly, Nate smiled and waved a pudgy hand.

nate super hunk

“Hi.”

The repairman grinned and waved back. “Hi.”

Before I could stop him, Nate lunged towards the man and squeezed him around the neck in a bear hug. The repairman paused for only a moment before wrapping his arms around my little tyke, returning his hug with a gentle smile.

“Well, hello there, little fella.”

Nate released him and wiggled down in his lap. With a contented sigh, he rested his head on the repairman’s shoulder. His face was utter contentment.

I watched the repairman carefully. He blinked back glassy tears but his smile stretched from ear to ear.

They chatted for several more minutes before the man reluctantly stood. He issued final instructions and lifted his massive bag of tools. I thanked him and, as he was walking out the door, I called out, “Don’t forget to come by on Christmas Eve if you’re here!”

He offered that sad kind of smile he has and nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

Then he was gone.

Nate looked at the window at his departure and frowned. “Bye-bye?”

I ruffled his dark curls. “Yes, son. He had to go bye-bye.”

I don’t know if I’ll ever see that man again. I pray so. There’s so much more I wanted to say. Comfort and encouragement that needed to be offered. But perhaps the greatest comfort and love was best shown through a wriggly puppy and a cuddly two-year old.

Appliances break. Motors stop running. We’re so quick to utter complaints or make phone calls to schedule repairs so our own lives will be easier. But what of the broken-hearted? The lonely? Who will see and care for their needs?

Never underestimate the power of a smile, an embrace or a listening ear. It could be the key to binding up a broken heart.

kindness

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…” ~Philippians 2:1-5

Tell me, what acts of kindness have you been shown in your life that made a difference? I would love to hear!

It Must be God’s Will…Really???

This past week has been a rough one. Why does it seem like holiday time is a tractor beam for bad news?

Someone I love dearly received an unexpected diagnosis. My heart ached to hear it. As this person shared their news on Facebook, one person remarked, “Well, this must be God’s will.” My eyes bugged out as my blood began to boil. God’s will? Really?

oh-really

I’ve been mulling over this concept for quite some time. When someone receives a medical diagnosis, people often blanket it under the guise of “God’s will”. When hurricanes drop devastation, we say it was “God’s will”. When an entire family is tragically taken in a car crash, we say “it was God’s will”. But was it really?

Before I sat down to write this blog, I went to social media to gather up opinions. I asked them this question: “Are all bad things that happen God’s will?” This seems to be a hot topic—my Facebook page was flooded in only an hour. Here are just a few of the responses:

Kathleen said, “A question I’ve asked again and again. After losing a friend to cancer, we went to a church where the pastor said, ‘Everything that happens is God’s will, and we should be big and strong enough in our faith to take it.’ We walked out. Were we weak? Maybe. But plenty of yuck happens that is not God’s doing. People make evil decisions that hurt children. People go with their selfish needs and desires, despite God’s soft whispering voice that said, ‘This is not for you.’ I have seen it again and again. God does help us grow and learn through our terrible experiences, and maybe, just maybe, give us the courage to write about it and help others grow through, as well.”

Jeremy said, “This mindset makes God the author of pain and suffering…which he is not. Pain and suffering are the result of original sin. This means that for us to judge that someone is suffering due to a particular sin, as in the case of Job’s friends, is always bad theology unless the suffering was a direct cause of that sin rather than an inferred consequence. When we make God the author of pain and suffering we create confusion rather than comfort and guilt instead of solace.”

fork-in-road

Dana added, “Bad things happen to good, Godly people. Like my sister getting cancer at 45. Was it God’s will? No. Did he know it would happen? Yes. The worse thing anyone could have said to us was that it was God’s will. I do not believe God willed for her to suffer so terribly as she did. I believe it broke God’s heart to see her suffer and for all of her family to be sad and crying. He was with us and I believe he caught every tear drop in His hand. Someone suggested to one of the family members that maybe she wasn’t prayed for enough. What a slap in the face and an insult to our faith. If that person had been correct then every person prayed for nonstop would be healed. But we live in a fallen world and this world is not perfect. This is not our home, thankfully!”

I love how my friend Cathy said it:

“Tara, I agree with most of what has been said above. Even if certain statements seem at odds with one another. His ways are not our way and His thoughts above our thoughts. When my eleven-year-old son was killed in a tragic accident, I learned about God’s allowable or permissive will (as Jolene says) vs His perfect will for us. Sometimes He permits things to happen for reasons we cannot understand or know. Was it for my own maturity? So that my son would be spared from drugs in his teen years? To increase my love for my daughter who was left? No idea. And I, too, don’t think God works that way, though these outcomes could result from such a tough situation. Sometimes He allows these hurtful things to happen to His own for reasons only known to Him. When it happened to me, He gave me a deep knowing-that on the day I see Jesus and am reunited with my son in heaven, I will have all my questions answered. Yet, I will be so thankful and overwhelmingly happy to see them both, I won’t care about those ‘whys’ anymore. After that, I didn’t waste time wondering because I trust the One who holds my hands through it all. I know He knows. So all is well.” Heart _

My husband and I were recently discussing all this and he said, “I suppose when it comes down to it, we blew God’s perfect will to smithereens in the Garden of Eden, didn’t we?”

Indeed.

We are locked in a cosmic battle whether we realize it or not. Good versus evil. Light versus darkness. God, the King of all, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer versus Satan, a fallen angel. Ever since Satan lifted up his heart in pride and said, “I will be like God” (Is. 14:13-15), he declared war against the Almighty, His creation and all God’s kids.

And here’s the thing, Satan will never be like God. He can’t be. He tries over and over again and fails every single time. Evil might be good at imitating Light for a little while but what it ultimately births cannot be hidden: death, disease, and chaos. Satan knows this. So if he can’t be like God, he does everything in his power to make God appear to be like him: cruel, vindictive, and indifferent.

liar

Personally, I think it’s one of Satan’s techniques as an accuser to have us believe it’s God’s will when bad things happen so we can then turn around and say, “God must not be good”. If we begin to believe God is not good and doesn’t have our good in mind, we will begin to question everything else about Him and the unraveling of our faith begins. Our enemy comes to steal, kill and destroy. He loves nothing more than for us to face crippling loss, and then have us turn to God with an accusing finger and say, “How could you?”

To say everything that happens is God’s will just leads to a directionless life, one full of personal irresponsibility and doubt in whether God really does have our best in mind. What a terrible way to live!

But God does indeed have a will. What is it? Scripture makes it clear.

1) For all men to be saved. (1 Timothy 2:3-4)

2) To give thanks in all circumstances. This strengthens our joy and dependence on God in adversity, as well as building patience, endurance, and forming us into the image of Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:18, James 1:2-4)

3) To live a life that is that different from the world, unpolluted, holy and set apart. (1 Thess. 4:3, Hebrews 13:20-21, Ephesians 5:15-20)

There is another type of will we need to talk about. Free will. God granted us all freedom to choose. Free will comes at a high price. He will not force us to love Him. He will not force us to do the right thing. Some choose love and light. Some choose darkness and evil, and their actions ripple far and deep, effecting generations in profound ways. Remember that cosmic battle we talked about? We are locked in war, whether we want to be or not. But take heart, child of God. We win. Read the Bible all the way to the end. Jesus will make all things right. As my pastor often says, when Jesus is finished, you’ll be able to look at all those horrors, the tormentors, the abusers and say, “Jesus took care of it. Boy, did He ever take care of it.”

In thinking over all this, God keeps bringing a passage back to mind. Luke 7: 11-17. A funeral procession was passing by Jesus and when He saw and heard the intensity of their grief, the original language says His compassion was so great He couldn’t help Himself. He had to move and intervene. He touched the funeral bier and brought the dead boy back to life.walking

He is the Author of Life. Nothing grieves His heart more than suffering. Some day all will be made right. Our enemy does not have the final say. He will be crushed.

And the beautiful thing about our Savior is that, even in the here and now, we can say, like Joseph, “what you intended for harm, God used for good.” He births beauty out of the most broken messes.

All will be well. Cling to the Hope of Jesus. He is holding you even now.